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Common Core, Capitalism and New York State's Social Studies Framework

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On Monday, March 10, 2014, the New York State Board of Regents, the group that sets policy for New York State schools, met with members of an advisory panel that helped write a new Common Core-aligned outline of the social studies skills and information that students should learn in each grade. The Regents will probably vote on the proposal in April. According to a report in Chalkbeat, the Regents want to avoid the parental and teacher upset generated by the implementation of Common Core English and Math standards and the accompanying high-stakes tests.

Vice Chancellor Anthony Bottar told representatives from the advisory panel and the State Education Department, "I need to know for sure that you have searched where you can and have talked to people, so that if we adopt what you are recommending, there isn't going to be this huge undercurrent of, 'We didn't know.'" One problem has been that the panel operated behind closed doors and the names and credentials of its members were never made public, although the preliminary report was distributed for review.

The State Education Department also proposed dividing Global History and Geography, currently a two-year high school survey of world history, into two separate courses with separate "Regents" standardized exams. Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch called the division of the two-year program a top priority, however it is not clear if there is support for a new test. The current Global History exam generally has the lowest passing rate of any of the state issued exams required for high school graduation.

Most of the social studies teachers I spoke with who have reviewed the draft New York State K-12 Common Core Social Studies Framework support changes in the Global Regents but see the curriculum guidelines as, to quote Will Shakespeare, "much ado about nothing." They change very little in the sequence of what is taught or in the topics that are included. But the biggest problem is their vagueness. Every state agency and textbook publisher in the United States now claims that their outlines, standards, curriculum, published material, and standardized tests are aligned with Common Core. But teachers are still waiting to learn, what does Common Core actually look like in the classroom?

The social studies teachers I work with are tired of both empty mandates and complex scripts. They would like to see examples of what Common Core standards look like in practice at different grade levels. What should eighth grade students be able to read in social studies? How complex should graphs be? What does a good argumentative essay based on evidence look like?

The New York State 5th and 8th social studies exams used to provide useful guidelines, but they were cancelled as the state shifted to intensive reading and writing test prep and assessment as part of its "Race to the Top." Right now there are no state social studies tests in New York State until tenth grade, so there is no real standard to measure student performance against.

One reason the national Common Core standards focus on English / Language Arts and math skills and obscure measurements such as text complexity is that when you look at what content should be taught you have very sharp disagreement. For example, in 1995, when U.S. and world history content standards were released by the National Center for History in Schools, they were widely denounced in the popular media and overwhelmingly rejected by the U.S. Senate. The content of the social studies curriculum, Common Core does not want to touch it.

In another example, the American Library Association maintains a list of frequently banned and challenged books in United States. The number one series on the list is Harry Potter. Other popular books near the top of the list include The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck; I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers; Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain; The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; Forever by Judy Blume; The Color Purple by Alice Walker; Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee; and The Giver by Lois Lowry. Common Core is steering clear of this controversy as well.

In 2013, state legislators in five states, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Indiana, considered bills to require the teaching of the Biblical explanation of the origin of the universe as science. Recently in Georgia, the superintendent of schools demanded that the word "evolution" be removed from the science curriculum to avoid offending religious and conservative parents. The state Board of Education will vote on the proposal in May. Common Core has nothing to say about it.

I reviewed both the draft and revised Common Core aligned high school Economics curriculum for an upcoming issue of the New York State / New Jersey social studies journal, Social Science Docket. The best thing I can say is that at least the New York State Education Department tried to address social studies content and they made possible a healthy debate. Unfortunately the draft framework was one of the worst curriculum outlines that I ever reviewed. I thought it read like a right-wing fairy tale. The revised framework was better, but still seriously flawed.

Start with the title -- "The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" -- and the introduction, which are the same for both the draft and the revised frameworks.

"The Economics of Free Enterprise in a Global Economy" examines the principles of the United States free market economy in a global context.

• Students will examine their individual responsibility for managing their personal finances in a global economy.
• Students will analyze the role of supply and demand in determining the prices individuals and businesses face in the product and factor markets, and the global nature of these markets.
• Students will study changes to the workforce in the United States and the role of entrepreneurs in our economy, as well as the impact of globalization.
• Students will explore the challenges facing the United States free market economy in a global environment and various policy-making opportunities available to government to address these challenges.

The authors of the framework clearly like to use Common Core action words. Students examine, analyze, study, and explore. But what exactly will they examine, analyze, study, and explore? The problem in this case is with the underlying principles, not of the U.S. economy, but of the framework. According to both the draft and revised frameworks, "Free enterprise is a pillar of the United States economy and is based on the principle that individuals and businesses are free to make their own economic choices as they participate in these markets."

But is "free enterprise the pillar of the United States economy"? I cannot find free enterprise described in the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, or the other "founding" documents, or imbedded in the Constitution of the United States. They describe religious freedom, democratic government, rights of individuals, and the structure of government, but not free enterprise, the rights of corporations, or the influence of hedge funds.

Tea Party Republicans and Fox News might argue that "free enterprise the pillar of the United States economy," but as the authors of the revised frameworks concede in an addition that did not appear in the original draft, the United States has a "mixed economy" and "a degree of regulation, oversight, or government control is necessary in some markets to ensure free and fair competition and to limit unintended consequences of American capitalism" such as "unemployment, inflation, poverty, and environmental degradation." The original draft did not even mention the word capitalism.

The primary focus of the framework is on individual economic choice and responsibility. But people do not choose to be underpaid because they are Black or women or out of work because they are technologically unemployed or their company shipped their job overseas. When I was a teenager I had a nasty fight with my father about money that he did not have and hence could not give me. In the way only a teenager can hurt a parent, I said I guessed it was my fault - I should have chosen a richer father.

What the economic standards leave out is that "free enterprise" is not the same as freedom and that you only have economic choices if you have money. The 1%, maybe the .5%, have economic choices, the rest of us get to decide between Big Macs and Whoppers. Whatever you may think of the Affordable Care Act, public education, the postal system, Social Security, or government agricultural subsidies, any working economist or economics teacher on the left or on the right will tell you that the United States has a "mixed" economy, not a "free market" economy.

In the standards students are told that as individuals they must be fiscally responsible, debt is BAD, but of course without accruing debt you cannot go to college, purchase a home, or buy a car. Every level of government is in debt to stimulate the economy and to invest in infrastructure. Corporations are always in debt as they invest in new products, facilities, and markets. Not only is debt virtually unavoidable and vital for investment, but bad debt is often not the fault of fiscally irresponsible individuals. Youth unemployment is endemic, the working class and middle class are plagued by wage stagnation, mortgage defaults were brought on by unscrupulous banking practices, and pensions are at risk because financial institutions sold worthless derivatives and "safe" savings accounts, money markets, and bonds pay almost zero interest - because of Federal Reserve Bank policies.

Globalization is described as an "opportunity." Recession, depression, trade, unemployment, outsourcing, generational poverty, income inequality and the challenges of class mobility are all described as "unintended consequences" of the free enterprise system, rather than as structural components. Certainly this is an issue that high school students should be debating. The draft standards originally told students that there would always be unemployment because unemployment is essential to avoid inflation, which of course is a nearly religious universal free enterprise value, except if you or a family member is one of the unfortunate unemployed. However this assertion was dropped in the revised standards.

Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and their economic theories do not appear in these standards. Either do contemporary economists like Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Alan Greenspan. The Common Core Standards make a big point of including academic vocabulary, but unbelievably, none of these words or terms appear in the economic standards - austerity, deficit, entitlement, insurance, social welfare, social security, income tax, progressive income tax, minimum wage, racism, monopoly, oligarchy, hedge fund, stock market, labor unions, gender bias, glass ceiling, Walmart, China, exploitation, child labor, socialism, or communism.

In an interesting New York Times St. Patrick's Day op-ed piece on the Great Irish Famine, Timothy Egan argued that Tea Party Republicans, particularly Irish Tea Party Republicans like Congressman and Presidential contender Paul Ryan, are guilty of embracing the same laissez-faire economic dogma and policies toward the poor that the British used to justify inaction and permitting the death of over a million Irish men, women, and children in the 1840s. Students should be able to examine, analyze, study, explore, and evaluate the arguments presented by Ryan and other Tea Party economic advocates, as well as their implications. It would be helpful if the term laissez-faire appeared in the state framework.

In the end, the biggest problem for me is that the state does not offer teachers any clues to what high school seniors should be able to examine, analyze, study, explore read, understand, discuss, and debate. Fortunately, newspapers such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal do. High school seniors should be able to read their economic and business articles.

On March 2, 2014, Eduardo Porter of the Times reported on increasing income disparity in the United States and Europe in an essay "A Relentless Widening of Disparity in Wealth."

Porter reported on the work of Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics. In a new book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," Piketty "puts into question many of our core beliefs about the organization of market economies." Piketty argued with substantial evidence that "the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free market capitalism, is wrong. Rather, the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time." Piketty's finding "cuts hard against the grain of economic orthodoxy that prevailed throughout the second half of the 20th century and still holds sway today," including in the New York State Common Core Economics Frameworks. The data, evidence, shows that "wages have been depressed for years. Profits account for the largest share of national income since the 1930s. The richest 10 percent of Americans take a larger slice of the economic pie than they did in 1913, at the peak of the Gilded Age."

Pro-capitalist economists defend the "free enterprise" system by arguing that wealthy Americans such as Bill Gates of Microsoft or Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs are "creators" who should be rewarded for their economic contributions. Piketty responds that their inflated wealth and the inflated wealth of the rest of the upper-tier of the 1% in no way reflects their economic contributions and is actually the result of laws and regulations that favor them at the expense of everyone else. He fears that the situation will worsen because of the immense power of the entrenched wealth.

The article by Porter also included a series of graphs describing "Irresistible Inequality" that support Piketty's analysis. Image what would happen if high school seniors were able to examine, analyze, study, explore read, understand, discuss, and debate material like this.